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Writing Distinctive Essays for College Applications

College Application

Writing Distinctive Essays for College Applications

The admissions essay is a pivotal part of the college application, a key way for students to stand out in large application pools. In the past five years, the percentage of colleges attributing “considerable importance” to the college essay has risen from 19% to 28%, and for most selective colleges, the essay is a key way for applicants to distinguish themselves and add a crucial bit of their own “voice” to their applications.

There are two main types of college application essays:  the personal essay, and the “why” essay.

The Personal Essay

A good personal essay is one where the reader comes away with something compelling and fundamental regarding who you are as an individual. Because admissions officers are looking to know you as an individual and consciously craft their campus communities through their admissions decisions, this essay is a key way for you to add your own unique voice to your applications and help them to know you more personally, beyond the numbers.

This is usually most effective if you can find a way to let those things “come across” rather than coming out and directly saying them.  For example, rather than coming out and directly saying “I am x” or “I am y”, the goal is to write such that these attributes are shown in the writing.  When the reader is done, you want the effect to be that she sits back and says “wow, this person is really x/all about y/truly passionate about z/etc.”  Usually the most effective and compelling way to do this is through stories/anecdotes, examples, and detail.

I would encourage you to employ a simple but effective 4 step process to explore the various things you can write about (or some variation of this process that works for you):

1.  Conception

The ultimate goal of the college essay is to have a desired effect on the reader (ALWAYS keep this in mind when writing college essays, as this is a somewhat different goal than in the writing one does for English class!).  Everything you do, every edit you make, every direction you go in your writing should contribute to furthering this goal.  If it doesn’t, its usually not a good use of your time, effort, or space (e.g. some types of edits you’d want to do for an English class piece really won’t contribute to this end goal of a college essay, and therefore aren’t good uses of your time; we’ll come across
examples as we go forward).

So, here are two good ways to start:

a.  Think about—and make a list of—the two or three things you would most like an admissions officer to know about you.  Alternatively, you could list a whole bunch of things and then pick what you take to be the most important 2 or 3.  What do you most want them to know about you as they consider you for admission? What’s most important for them to know about you as an individual?


b.  Think about the most important values, principles, and/or activities to you and make a list of these things…what are you most interested in or passionate about?  This can be a concept, idea, academic subject or discipline, extra curricular activity, etc.  For example, if I were very interested in music and play an instrument, “artistic expression” and “excellence” might be values or principles I write down.

This is usually easiest in conversation with your mentor, but it is important for you to practice this
and learn to do it on your own, since your counselor won’t always be around to help you with this.

2.  Brainstorm

Using these items from Step 1, begin to brainstorm various experiences, anecdotes, people, etc. that might have something to do with them.  You don’t have to do any writing just yet, just think about them and list them on a sheet of paper (or computer document).

Also, based on particular essay prompts, do this as well.  For example, the Common Application short essay asks applicants to “Tell us about a significant experience…”  So, you would then just start brainstorming significant experiences.  If it asks for an influential person, brainstorm influential people, and so forth based on whatever essays your applications ask you to write.

3.  Freewrite

For each brainstorming item above in Step 2, start a new document and just start freewriting.  Just let it flow without regard to structure, development, grammar, or anything formal at all, and just see what comes out (you can organize and develop later, the key here is to just see what comes out regarding each particular brainstormed item).

For some things you won’t have much to say, which is fine.  For some things you’ll have a medium amount to say, and for some you’ll find yourself writing a great deal.  All of this is fine.  The key with this freewriting step is to determine where the most fertile topical ground lies, and then…

4.  Develop

Once you have done some freewriting and you see where you have a lot to say, you can then start to organize your thoughts, develop and flesh out your ideas, polish, etc.

If you follow these steps, you’ll be well on your way to having a bunch of good essays for your applications.  Some of them will be useable globally (i.e. they will work for a lot of schools’ essay requirements), and some will either have to be tweaked or developed in response to something specific to a particular school (e.g. Stanford would want you to write a fictitious letter to your future college roommate, and this is useable only for Stanford).

The “Why” Essay

Because selective institutions are very interested in applicants who genuinely know their school well and are applying for good reasons, the “why essay” is usually a very important part of your application.  This is the primary way for you to show that you’ve done really good research, that you know the school well, and to succinctly articulate why you’re applying.

The key to this essay is demonstrating depth and specificity of knowledge.  This means simply that it needs to contain very specific pieces of information and clearly demonstrate that you know the school well, particularly with regard to your proposed area(s) of study.

  For example, if a college asks “Why are you applying?’, one answer is to say “I like your neuroscience program.”  However, this does not answer what specifically you like about it, nor does it go into any depth.  So you might instead say “I like the courses offered in your neuroscience program.”  This is a bit more specific than the first answer, but still lacks depth.  A really good example here of depth and specificity might be something like this:

“Your neuroscience curriculum has a very clear language acquisition component.  Recent research by Professors X and Y has focused on this, and the Kennedy Seminar Series featured a speaker on language acquisition earlier this year.  I find some of the courses offered very unique and interesting, such as [insert course names here], which analyze [insert academic area here].  Language acquisition is also particularly meaningful to me on a personal level, given my deep study of English as a second language.”

Notice how important good research is for this type of essay; one can’t demonstrate depth and specificity of knowledge without first having researched very well and taken lots of good notes!  During our time we will work on these types of answers together and you won’t be on your own.  Once you’ve done this a couple of times, you will become more and more proficient in doing it by